Australia v South Africa, 1st Test, Perth, 1st day December 17, 2008

Neither side goes the distance

Since the teams last met nearly three years ago Australia's power has diminished while South Africa have grown stronger

Graeme Smith had at his disposal one of the most fearsome fast-bowling line-ups but appeared reluctant to go for the jugular © Getty Images (file photo)

Australia and South Africa have spent so long engaging in similar battles that they know their roles back to front. Australia aim to blast their opponents away and South Africa try to keep up with a mix of conservatism and bravado, often falling at crucial moments. Since the teams last met nearly three years ago Australia's power has diminished while South Africa have grown stronger. Both squads slipped back into their familiar ways on the opening day in Perth.

At the end of an even day neither team would feel unhappy with their position but equally each side missed chances to finish with a handy edge. South Africa had Australia at 3 for 15 within the first half hour yet could not maintain the pressure on the middle order; Australia recovered with two useful partnerships only for a string of batsmen to push the aggression meter a step too far.

Their stumps score of 9 for 341 was reasonable but South Africa let the world's No. 1 team off the hook. When Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn made the three early breakthroughs the feeling of dominance must have been strange to the men who have pursued Australia for so long, only to suffer disappointment after disappointment. And, like a dog chasing a car, they seemed not to know what to do when they had their quarry in their grasp.

Graeme Smith had at his disposal one of the most fearsome fast-bowling line-ups in the world, boasting the young and extremely quick Steyn and Morne Morkel alongside the evergreen Ntini. Simon Katich and Michael Clarke built a recovery for Australia after the early stumbles but even though they nudged their score to 3 for 74 at lunch, it was hardly a position of power.

Yet Smith appeared reluctant to go for the jugular and before the first break he was only prepared to offer Steyn, the leading wicket-taker in Tests in 2008, two slips at one of the world's premier fast-bowling venues. It was also strange that with guns like Steyn and Morkel in his armoury Smith relied so heavily on Jacques Kallis, who was as lethal as a pineapple and just as tasty for Australia's batsmen.

Kallis leaked 65 from his 15 overs and rarely looked like taking a wicket. Strangely he was the first man Smith turned to after tea when Andrew Symonds and Brad Haddin, who went on to construct the second of Australia's rescue stands, were both new to the crease. Kallis had only one man in the cordon and it allowed Symonds to feel his way with a couple of boundaries that were edged through the vacant region.

Smith has spent the past few weeks assuring the world that South Africa have erased the scars of previous failures against Australia but a lingering cautiousness belied his words. However, if South Africa failed to attack enough, Australia perhaps pushed too hard. Aggression has been their preferred style for several years and when Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting are at their best it looks brilliant. It's also wonderful to watch when Symonds, Haddin and Clarke get firing, as they did for a time today.

Clarke's 62 ended when he chipped Paul Harris lazily to mid-on just after Katich had departed; Symonds fell for an obvious trap when he lofted Harris to the man on the boundary for 57; and Haddin top-edged Ntini to the outfield for 46. They were poorly chosen strokes at times when Australia had the chance to punish South Africa but Katich, who made a composed 83, defended his team-mates.

"That's the nature of the game when you play that way," Katich said. "It's fine when you score quickly and that got us the momentum on the scoreboard so you can't be too critical of guys when that happens because that's the way those guys play."

The end result was that Australia made their highest first-innings total at the WACA in four years. But the spinner Harris, who picked up two wickets, said his side was pleased with the state of play. "If you'd said to us under 350 for 9 at the start of the day we probably would have taken that," Harris said. "A few runs leaked at the end but I think 350 on that deck, it's a pretty good wicket, I think we can bat ourselves into a good lead."

At a venue where batting usually gets easier as the match wears on and the pitch loses bite, there is every chance they will do just that. It was understandable that on the first day of Test cricket between the sides in nearly three years the players would take a while to feel their way and get a read on their opponents. The next few days will reveal whether the teams are prepared to tweak their approaches after years of typecasting.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo